Atlantic Conveyor  

25th May: Fire and exploding armaments on Atlantic Conveyor after being hit by two Exocet missiles. ALACRITY 'hastens to help'

Photo Surg. Lt.Cdr Stephen Shaw RN

 
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MAY: the fighting begins in earnest

 

On the gunline

1st MAY: ALACRITY, ARROW and GLAMORGAN close with Port Stanley for the first daylight Naval Gunfire Support (NGS) action. ALACRITY'S Lynx helicopter is sent on spotting role but is fired upon by the Argentine Naval patrol craft, Islas Malvinas (GC82), near Kidney Island. The Lynx returned fire and silenced that from the patrol craft but was hit by machine gun fire from an armed fishing vessel that accompanied the Islas Malvinas. The Lynx continued with the intent of conducting the spotting mission and landed to check on damage. Machine gun fire had holed the long range fuel tank and fuel was draining at a rapid rate. The aircraft returned to ALACRITY for an emergency landing. As the Lynx approached the NGS group all on board were impressed by the sight of three proud warships, on the gunline, with bright battle ensigns standing out from the dull grey of the sea. The final damage to the Lynx was extensive including holes in an engine, fuselage and fuel tank. Most alarming was the fact that a bullet had sliced through the tail rotor drive shaft leaving very little metal intact. Pilot, Lt. Rob Sleeman, surely had the closest escape when a bullet went through the windscreen- it would have hit him had he not instinctively turned his head to check he was clear to turn away from the gunfire. The Islas Malvinas was later captured by CARDIFF and renamed HMS TIGER BAY.

ALACRITY, ARROW and GLAMORGAN shelled Stanley airfield to follow up on the bombing by the RAF Vulcan and Sea Harriers. Argentine Mirage V 'Daggers' bounced the trio catching the three ships by surprise. 1,000 Ib bombs narrowly missed ALACRITY, exploding in her wake and GLAMORGAN was hit by canon fire. Retreating with alacrity (the phrase 'with alacrity' must be the most common expression of the Royal Navy's attitude to its duties) to clear the land and reduce the risk of attack from the air, the trio (nicknamed Three Musketeers as they sere to act together on a number of occasions) were back on the gunline the same evening, creating destruction but more importantly, wearing down the invaders. This latter task became something of a nightly habit for ALACRITY and other gun equipped ships: sneaking into shore at night, firing on carefully chosen Argentine troop positions, and retiring to the East as soon as the job was done to avoid enemy aircraft that would come with the daylight.

DAGGER

'Expendable' ALACRITY

The small ships of the Taskforce had a number of serious functions to carry out prior to any landing of troops. The defined Total Exclusion Zone had to be dominated, threats from the Argentine Air Force and Naval Air Force had to be responded to, the carriers and support ships needed defending, Argentine forces had to be attacked, harried and frustrated, and for ALACRITY an additional job was identified. San Carlos had been chosen as the beachhead for the retaking of the Islands (we knew this, not because Admiral Woodward had shared the fact with us, but because we heard retired senior officers discussing the options on the BBC World service! Later the planned attack of 2 Para.on Goose Green was also announced on the World Service and luckily the Argentines , who were listening to the BBC, assumed that no country was stupid enough to allow its broadcasters to transmit real intentions!).

Admiral Woodward in his book 'One Hundred Days ' describes the ship as 'Expendable ALACRITY'. He was musing over his decision to send a warship into the sound to test the approaches to San Carlos. Amphibious ships, ships taken up from trade (STUFT) and escorting warships were eventually to enter the waters of Falkland Sound and San Carlos, disembarking troops and stores. Before that could happen Admiral Woodward needed to be sure that the ships could do so with every chance of success. Intelligence identified a minefield had been laid in the approaches to Stanley so it was considered quite possible that mines had also been laid across the entrance to the Sound and approaches to San Carlos. The Admiral needed a mine-sweeper but the nearest was 8,000 miles away. He needed an alternative and one that was expendable. With our recent experience of the Sound it was only reasonable to make use of it and send ALACRITY in again. . On the grand military scale It was certainly more important that he knew the approaches to San Carlos to be free of mines than that ALACRITY survived. Looking back the logic is irrefutable but I'm not sure we saw it that way at the time! The carriers and the troop ships and the ships carrying their stores and equipment were indispensable - without them the Falklands would not be recovered, and the Taskforce would return home with its tail between its legs. The loss of a general purpose frigate would be sad but unlikely to affect the outcome of the war. Our gallant captain, reading between the lines, asked if the admiral would like us to explore the various channels leading into the Sound, making several passes and check for mines. The account of this understanding between two exceptional officers is best read in their respective biographies. Whatever else general purpose frigates are equipped to do, minesweeping was not in the plan. If mines there were then ALACRITY would announce them with her own destruction. This was not a popular choice of activity for the crew but steeled by an extra special meal (we came to be wary when meals became 'special') and confident in our captain and ourselves' it was a case of getting on with the job in hand. If truth be known it was a quieter ship's company that went to action stations that night.

10th MAY: ALACRITY was tasked with sweeping through the Falkland Sound in the first circumnavigation of East Falkland, gathering intelligence and generally making a nuisance of ourselves. ALACRITY detached from the Taskforce on the morning of 10 May and after sweeping well to the south of Argentine radars based at Stanley sailed west at high speed in a welcome fog. The ship's helicopter was launched to recce the southern entrance to the Falkland Sound and with nothing seen that would require a change to the plan, ALACRITY entered the southern entrance at 2300. We were now on our own and well over 100 miles from friendly support should we run into trouble. Thankfully it was a very dark night.

MAP

The Lynx was later sent off to harry the garrison in Fox Bay. With ALACRITY less than halfway through the Sound, the Lynx crew turned back to 'Mother' when over the radio came the news that ALACRITY had identified a suspected enemy vessel a few miles ahead. ALACRITY engaged the vessel with the 4.5 gun. Images of 15 rounds of high explosive are seen to converge on the radar target and a lookout reports a large orange flash on the bearing of the target. On the radar the target fades. There were only four survivors of the Argentine Navy supply ship , ISLAS DE LOS ESTADOS though we didn't know details of the ship or losses until much later. Though excitement ran through the ship at having scored a major hit on the enemy, there was a great deal of concern for those lost in the explosion and for those we couldn't stop to rescue (small lights were reported in the water by the Lynx). Surely the Argentines were now wide awake and it was time to head for home. The Lynx was recovered and best speed made to complete the transit, We exited the Sound just before 0200 to be met by ARROW who was standing by to render assistance should we need it. and together headed back towards the relative safety of the Taskforce. What we were to learn much later was that an Argentine submarine, SAN LUIS, observed our exit from the sound and fired a torpedo at the rapidly moving ship. Our luck held and the torpedo didn't find us and the presence of ARROW made it too risky for the submarine commander to try again. Our high speed rendered our own sonar useless and we were blissfully unaware of the close shave we had.

13/14th MAY: ALACRITY tasked with supporting GLASGOW who had been damaged by Argentine bombs on the 12th.

15th MAY: ALACRITY invited to drop off special forces personnel wilst making our second passage through Falkland Sound and completing the check for mines. Minesweeping becoming a habit (and another special meal). After a fast and rough passage and with as much machinery shut down as possible to limit detection by the enemy,ALACRITY slid past Fanning Head . in the mouth of Grantham Sound two Gemini inflatables were launched and conveyed men of the special forces ashore. These 'Sneaky Beakies' were held in some awe by the ship's company but this author overheard one SAS man share with his colleague that he was full of admiration for the stoicism and humour of sailors who were 'trapped' in a thin metal hull and not able individually to defend themselves against so many threats! Inter-Service respect is a vital element in any war and there was lots of it about.

The boats took much longer than expected to return: a problem cutting through the swathes of kelp but what sailor could resist taking a few minutes to select a Falkland's rock to bring back for their captain's birthday? The rock is now a treasured possession of Chris Craig. Thankfully, for a second time, we found no mines adn the morning found us racing back to the main battle group.

16th MAY : Invited to sink a ditched Sea King from which the crew had escaped to safety. Sunk with small arms fire without the attached torpedoes exploding!

21st MAY: After a number of attacks by Argentine aircraft, ARDENT was sunk with the loss of 22 men killed and 37 wounded. It took 17 bombs and missiles to sink her but the Argentine attention to the warships saved the troops ashore from serious attack. This important function of the Naval vessels was never explored in the media but the warships were used as tempting targets for the Argentine Air Force. With only brief moments to make their attack decisions (partly due to the local terrain and partly the fire from ships and shore batteries) the Argentine pilots chose the small ships as their targets and in doing so allowed the amphibious landings and support to go ahead unhindered.

23rd MAY: ANTELOPE destroyed when an unexploded Argentine bomb detonated as a bomb disposal team tried to diffuse it. ALACRITY with ARROW escort RFAs into the Sound.

 
ATLANTIC CONVEYOR: Exocet attack

25th MAY: Super Etendards of the Argentine Navy launch an attack on the Taskforce. On board ALACRITY the call 'Handbrake' is received announcing that Exocet AM39 radar had been detected- the missiles flying at 300 metres each second, were on their way. ALACRITY and other warships fire chaff (to confuse the missile's radar) and turn to give the best chance of escaping the missiles. Fooled by the response the Exocets fly through the chaff but their active radars pick up another target- the 15,000 ton MV ATLANTIC CONVEYOR. This merchantman did not carry chaff and was not built for agility. She rocked as two missiles hit her. With her cargo of Chinook helicopters, ammunition (including cluster bombs) and stores she was soon burning fiercely and the surviving crew members and the embarked Naval Party abandoned ship: not an easy task in a swell and with the height of the vessel above the waterline. ALACRITY immediately hastened to help. Damage control parties manned hoses in a futile attempt to fight the fires that had already taken hold. In the swell ALACRITY'S port bow is thrown against ATLANTIC CONVEYOR'S side. The Captain is very aware of the weakened state of the ship after weeks of severe pounding and the long term damage that could result from such collisions. It is clear that the fires burning in ATLANTIC CONVEYOR are already beyond control and the effort refocuses on picking up survivors.

'Jock' Stevenson is the swimmer of the watch and is put in the water to help with the rescue effort. CONVEYOR people are pulled out of the water and life rafts and first-aid parties led by Stephen Shaw and Mike Thatcher treat injuries and hypothermia. All this time there are explosions coming from the burning hull. We recover 74 men and three bodies.

26th MAY: Burial at sea. The three men who had died the day before were buried at sea with all the honour and ceremony we could muster. The short service was attended by most of the off-watch ALACRITY's and the CONVEYOR survivors. The dead were certainly not alone. A year later we were able to host the family of LAEM Don Pryce onboard ALACRITY and reassure them of the dignity we able to give his passing. A funeral at sea is a humbling experience and one that is never forgotten.

27th MAY: ATLANTIC CONVEYOR survivors reunited onboard BRITISH TAY. ALACRITY returns to the routine of night time shore bombardment - this time against Argentine positions on Wireless Ridge, Mount Harriet and Tumbledown. Argentine forces now returning fire which makes the gunline decidedly more interesting!

By now MoD was warning ALACRITY that the gun barrel was at the end of its planned life: the gun having fired many hundreds of round prior to 1982. The message was clear that firing the gun beyond the imposed limit could mean the gun itself exploding. Notwithstanding this the Captain states his intention to use the gun until the barrel falls off.

31st MAY: ALACRITY's final night on the gunline.

 

 

 

 

 

 
 

DAGGER ATTACK

Argentine aircraft attack Royal Navy ships

 

ISLAS MALVINAS

Islas Malvinas GC-82

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ILAS DE LOS ESTADOS

Islas de los Estados

 

SAN LUIS

San Luis - a missed opportunity?

 

SUB CREW

Onboard SAN LUIS - crew members from 1982

 

 

ARDENT

HMS ARDENT's last moments

 

 

CONVEYOR

Atlantic Conveyor